A Pinkified Girls' World
Updated: Aug 19
[Originally published September 7th, 2014]
Does pink limit girls or are we just catering to what little girls really want? Of course, the answer isn't really as straight forward as the question, but I have to start somewhere, so let's start with the problem: what's so wrong with pink?
There’s also nothing wrong with baking, nursing, and child-rearing… unless, apparently, you're a boy. Which brings us to the real problem: the association between pink and female gender role. The problem is that pinks and purples are used exclusively for girls’ toys, which limits girls and boys to developing gender-stereotypical skills and desires.
Take a look at this picture:
I didn’t just look for the most glaring example I could find on Google images. I happened to see it in my local supermarket, and took some photos.
Toys that used to stay away from this dichotomy are now making a clear attempt to follow the trend. Only recently , Kinder decided to offer "gender-appropriate" Kinder SURPRISE eggs, which, far from surprising, meant blue-wrapped eggs for boys, complete with toy car, and pink-wrapped eggs for girls, complete with fashion dolls and accessories. Even family-friendly board games aren't safe, as the (very) pink edition of Monopoly, entitled “Monopoly Boutique”, shows. The game features spas and jewellery stores instead of famous streets, boutiques and malls instead of houses and hotels, and instant messages and text messages instead of Chance and Community Chest cards. On Amazon, it's claimed that this particular version of monopoly: “is an ideal gift item for girls”, especially since it “comes in a beautiful pink box and all the new movers can be attached to a charm bracelet!”
And Lego – without a doubt my favourite toy as a child [and even now, as an adult] – has also introduced a “girl-friendly” collection called “Lego Friends”, set in a pink and purple town, with taller, feminine characters that bear little resemblance to the original Lego minifigs. These collections are focussed on baking, beauty, and caring. And many of the other Lego alternatives targeted at girls (such as Scala, Clikits, and Belville) feature little building at all. Meanwhile, the traditional Lego collections, now more vigorously aimed at boys, are focussed on search and rescue (fire brigades, police, etc.), construction, battles, transport, and science.
The issue, here, is that the toys available to girls and boys are based on highly stereotyped social roles. The girls’ toys emphasise ideals of beauty, popularity, nurturing, childrearing, and homemaking. The boys’ toys emphasise power, activity, control, aggression, and competition. Notably, also, more maths and science-related toys are available for boys, who are also afforded greater access to video games, construction toys, group sports, and outside activities, which enhances their maths skills and spatial abilities (Halpern, 2012).
By presenting the ideal woman as a beautiful nurturer and the ideal man as a powerful aggressor, we tell girls that their primary value is in their appearance and ability to care for others, and we tell boys that they shouldn't lower themselves to female professions and activities, such as nursing or beauty therapy.
Of course, most know that girls can be many things that boys can: active, intelligent, imaginative, competitive (etc.). But don't get ahead of yourself, because while you’re building things, shooting things, and saving the world, you had better do it with a pretty smile and some style. And how do we allow girls to adopt these “masculine” traits in a socially acceptable fashion? Pinkify the boys’ toys!
Meanwhile, it's expected that “boys will be boys”, and only boys; things like getting your nails painted, playing with dolls, and setting up cupcake stands, are considered, among other things, “gay”, “weak”, and “sissy”. It wouldn't matter how much blue was involved in these activities.
While the colour blue cannot seem to make girls' toys and activities acceptable for boys, somehow pink turn boys' toys into girls' toys all too easily. Pink Lego, pink guns, pink trucks, and even this, are all likely to be rejected by most boys (if not their parents) because it’s not actually about the toy itself, but what the toy represents. A toy may be a construction set – a traditionally boy’s toy – but so long as it’s found in the pink aisle, it’s a girls' toy.
[2022 addition: Barbie has gone through some changes in advertising and demographics, offering dolls with different hair colours, different races, and different body types. The problem, however, is that these dolls are still essentially a divergence from the unattainable "ideal". For this reason, while I couldn't find any stats to back this hypothesis up, I'd be willing to bet that white, blonde, skinny Barbie still outsells all the other Barbies combined.
I base this on the things I learned during my Psychology undergraduate degree. If you look at the doll test, for example, children, regardless of their own skin colour, are more likely to to choose a doll with light skin over dark skin because they internalise society's ideas of what is good and what is bad, even when it plays into negative stereotypes about their own social group (Clark, 1985). Consumers – in this case, children – still latch onto the "preferred" depiction of a beautiful woman, and Barbie should be no exception.]
What do Psychologists say about sex-based colour and toy preferences?
On one hand:
Sex-typical behaviour is linked to biology. Evidence suggests that a more masculinised brain is responsible for more male-typical behaviour and skills across various domains (Resnick et al., 1986), including free-drawings and visuo-spatial ability (Iijima et al., 2001).
One of the main differences between girls and boys is their preferences for colour, which can be observed in their free-drawings, where girls typically use more pinks and warmer colours than boys (Iijima et al., 2001). According to the Female Brain Hypothesis, preference for more reddish tones may have evolved because it helps females identify edible fruits/berries, and the emotions of others (appropriate to their role as caregiver). Supporting this, Hurlbet and Ling (2007) found that while both males and females preferred bluish contrasts, females showed an additional preference for reddish contrasts (though these weren't “pink” per se).
As for toys, some evidence shows that males prefer toys that can be used actively, and that females prefer toys that can be ‘nurtured’. This was demonstrated by Alexander and Hines (2002) in vervet monkeys who presumably hadn't been socially conditioned in the same way that human children are. They concluded that females interacted more with a doll because they interact with infants more than males do, and that males interacted more with a car and a ball because these toys could be used in rough-and-tumble play. Similarly, Hassatt et al. (2008) found that male rhesus monkeys preferred wheeled toys over stuffed toys.
Perhaps more compelling evidence can be drawn from studies on human infants. Connellan et al. (2000), for example, found that while both male and female new-born infants liked looking at a picture of a female’s face, male infants spent more time looking at a moving mobile. Beyond this implied preference for different types of stimuli (social versus mechanical), both sexes exhibit sex-typed preferences for different types of toys from as early as 1-year-old (Halpern, 2012). This is important because the argument is that the younger the child, the less likely behaviour reflects learning and experience (Halpern, 2012).
On the other hand:
There are a number of methodological issues with the evidence provided above.
First, the female vervet monkeys used by Alexander and Hines (2002) also preferred a pan, the function of which would have alluded both male and female monkeys. It's unclear why a cooking utensil would be chosen more by female monkeys if they had no understanding of the item, or ability to use it as intended. Second, when compared directly to each other, the male and female rhesus monkeys of Hassatt et al.’s (2000) study were equally interested in the wheeled toys, and spent a similar amount of total time with the stuffed toys.
These issues are exacerbated by the lack of agreement about what counts as a “feminine” toy: while Alexander and Hines (2002) used a stuffed toy as a gender-neutral option, Hassatt et al. (2008) used stuffed toys as female-appropriate options. The findings of both studies relating to the male-appropriate toys were also contradictory: Alexander and Hines (2002) found that male monkeys preferred moving toys, while Hassatt et al. (2008) found no such male v. female preference.
This lack of reliability is also apparent in studies using human infants. Notably, Connellan et al.’s (2000) research hasn't been replicated, and the results are explained by other mechanisms (Grossi & Fine, 2012). Meanwhile, the impact of gender socialisation on preferences has been demonstrated time and time again with relative consistency (Grossi & Fine, 2012).
Learning begins at birth, and most of the brain’s physical growth occurs within the first two years of life, which is when we form the most neural connections in our brains – more than we will ever have again in our lives.
In the earliest years, neural connections form and take on particular functions in response to environmental factors and hormones. If particular connections aren’t stimulated, they die.
The first two years are particularly critical in the development of emotional, social, intellectual, and cognitive skills. The brain triples in weight by the time a child reaches 2-years-old, and at 1-years-old, synaptic density is typically 150% that of adults’.
[Research shows that babies outperform adults in their ability to distinguish faces, to the extent that they can distinguish between different monkey faces. This ability narrows based on the faces we're regularly exposed to (Pascalis et al., 2002). If, for example, a young infant isn't exposed to different racial groups, the neurons involved in facial recognition for these groups are "pruned", which affects recognition accuracy for faces of different races (Kelly et al., 2007).]
Given the role of experience even in the earliest years, it's reasonable to expect that the similar preference for bluish tones between males and females may reflect how females are less discouraged from using male-typical colours than males are from using female-typical colours (Turgeon, 2008). Females also use more colours in general and these choices are closely related to the content of their drawings such as houses, flowers, and people, which are also affected by gender norms.
If this is the case, there is no real need [except for marketing] for toy companies to pinkify toys to the extent that they do. There is nothing about a pink gun or a purple drill that makes it inherently more appealing to girls, except that the colours tell girls “it’s okay to want this toy”, and tells boys to stay away.
How do we know this is culturally maintained?
Because, in the West, pink for girls and blue for boys used to be reversed.
In an article in the Sunday Sentinel of 1914, American mothers were advised to “use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention” (Goldacre, 2007; Frassanito & Pettorini, 2008; Henley, 2009). Later, the Ladies’ Home Journal of 1918 reported that pink was for boys because the colour was stronger and more decided (Goldacre, 2007; Frassanito & Pettorini, 2008; Henley, 2009). This was because pink is a pastel version of red (Orenstein, 2006), which is more fiery, and thus a masculine colour (Menon, 2012). Blue was considered more delicate and dainty, and thus prettier for girls (Goldacre, 2007; Henley, 2009). This was because blue was associated with the Virgin Mary, who was often depicted in blue (Menon, 2012), and thus the colour denoted such virtues as constancy and faithfulness (Orenstein, 2006). And in 1927, Time magazine reported on the disappointment surrounding the birth of a baby girl (Princess Astrid) to the Belgian King and Queen at the time, where it was written that the cradle had been “optimistically decorated in pink, the colour for boys” (Henley, 2009; Menon, 2012).
It wasn't until the mid 20th Century that blue was associated with boys and pink with girls (Paoletti, 2012; Menon, 2012). It isn’t clear why, but the change occurred over decades (between the 1940s and 1970s) – the association between pink and femininity, and between blue and masculinity was gradually acquired, rather than the result of an inherent preference (Paoletti, 2012).
Until the 1930s and 40s, boys not only wore pink, but dresses, sometimes up until the age of 7, when they were first dressed in trousers in a “breeching ceremony” (Paoletti, 2012). This tradition was centuries old and was considered a rite of passage into manhood, when many young boys would also get their first haircuts and were suddenly expected to become small adults (Paoletti, 2012).
Before this, during the 19th Century, most infants were typically dressed in white dresses because it was deemed more important to differentiate between children and adults, than between boys and girls (Menon, 2012).
It wasn’t until the 20th century that children were emancipated from their status as “sexless cherubs” (Paoletti, 2012). But, why? Marketing.
A children’s market had emerged, coinciding with the end of the Second World War (Huun & Kaiser, 2001), and differentiating boys from girls meant more money could be made (Henley, 2009). [This dampened in the 70s, coinciding with the women's movement, but came back with a vengeance in the 80s].
[Children are a highly marketable population, and are strongly motivated to fit in. If a child doesn't conform to gender identity norms, they are ripe for bullying (Frisoli, 2019). When a company can claim that “this toy is for boys and that toy is for girls”, they’re tapping into a child’s intense desire to express their gender identity based on what they play with. This translates into an effective campaign from children who then pester their parents into buying specific toys.]
A girl doesn't pop out of the womb craving pink dresses and beauty boxes. It is her gender identity that she seeks to affirm from a very early age, and she does this by fitting in with her assigned gender role, which is based on culturally-specific gender norms and stereotypes.
Although there’s nothing wrong with the colour pink per se, as long as the colour is used to limit girls to one type of behaviour and boys to another, all for the sake of profits, we are preventing true gender equality.
The whole story (in brief):
The main way children actively attempt to demonstrate identification with a gender is by adopting particular “gender-appropriate” play, toys, and clothes. By behaving in ways consistent with what society dictates as gender-appropriate, children are showing that they identify with same-sex others.
These gender reinforcement practices are based on four developmental milestones – none of which involves a direct, innate preference for particular colours or toys:
Gender identity (the earliest form of social categorisation). This is a child's ability to say "I'm a boy" or "I'm a girl", which develops at around 2- to 3-years-old. It's also often accompanied with gender beliefs (stereotypes) and expression (e.g., girls wear pink) (Martin & Ruble, 2004; Shaffer, 2009; Kinzler & Spelke, 2011).
Social identification. This refers to self-categorisation into particular social groups based on a desire to belong (Brewer, 1991), emerging at around 3-years-old (with gender identity) and peaking at around 5-years-old (with racial identity) (Cameron et al., 2001; Kinzler & Spelke, 2011; Zelazo, 2013).
Sex-segregation. This is the period in a child's life (between approx. 4- and 12-years-old) where they spend the majority of their free play time with same-sex others (Maccoby, 2002).
Gender permanence/constancy. This refers to a child’s understanding of the irreversibility of their sex [transexual operations notwithstanding], emerging at around 5- or 6-years-old (Cameron et al., 2001; Shaffer, 2009).
With gender identity, children are motivated to emphasise their similarity to same-sex peers, prefer their own gender category (e.g. "girls are better than boys" or vice versa), selectively pay attention to and remember information relevant to their own sex, and are more interested in gender-stereotyped activities (Martin & Ruble, 2004).
This behaviour tends to be reinforced (Berebaum & Hines, 1992); in practically every society, girls are encouraged to engage in female-typical behaviour, and boys in male-typical behaviour (Halpern, 2012), though what this actually looks like depends on the culture.
It starts from birth, where almost everything serves to remind children of their gender-roles. So entrenched is this tendency, that most parents are certain that they are reacting to, rather than helping form, gender-differences. (In fact, the interaction between biology and environment is much more complex.)
We are all active participators in the gender development of children. While the desire for inclusion is cross-cultural, especially in relation to gender identity, the particular markers of masculine versus feminine behaviour aren't.
Currently, highly gendered labels and expectations are being used to prime gender-based interests and abilities in children, which translates into highly gendered play. Self-fulfilling prophecies follow.
We can minimise this without ostracising children by understanding the extent to which we construct what is masculine and what is feminine. Children can develop healthy gender identities without conforming to the “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” mantra so long as enough of us are willing to be the change we want to see in the world.
[The base desire to identify with your gender is cross-cultural. It's not so much that girls really do love pink and boys hate it, it’s that they want to show which gender identity they have by tapping into society's definitions. Toys are gender-neutral. Marketing isn't. By gendering toys according to societal standards, companies capitalise on the desire for children to express their gender identities. The problem is that the cues children use to show gender identity (pink versus blue, guns versus cooking sets) are societal and end up limiting children’s interests according to society’s definitions of gender.]
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